Don’t Netflix Your Way Through Crises

One thing I find especially bothersome about the response to the COVID-2019 pandemic is the common meme telling average people to “just stay home and watch Netflix.”

What does it say about us that this is a common idea of how to respond to a major crisis? The Netflix prescription is a passive, helpless, hopeless way to experience a trying time which may last for months. It’s a meaning-starved narcotic for people who have the time and luxury to watch it. And it’s not much of a palliative for people who are losing their jobs or friends and loved ones.

Sure – let’s watch some movies if that’s a normal part of life for us. But there are about a thousand better things we can be doing.

We can be supporting our friends and families. We can be catching up with old friends online and in video calls, delivering groceries for at-risk folks, and sharing important public health advisories with our neighbors.

We can be developing ourselves and improving our own lives. We can be learning new skills and languages, reading useful books, exercising outside (away from people), painting, teaching, or selling.

We can be preparing for the shockwaves and the aftermath of this crisis. We can be planting gardens and raising chickens and buying investments and fixing things around the house and stocking up and learning first aid.

We can be supporting the response to the pandemic. We can be donating, raising funds for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, or contributing time to online crowdsourced projects to make masks and other gear.

And we can do all of these things – as we would with Netflix – from home. There aren’t enough good shows on any streaming platforms to make this time worthwhile only for consumption. Find something useful and meaningful now: you won’t regret it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Coronavirus Reminds Us What Education Without Schooling Can Look Like

As the global coronavirus outbreak closes more schools for weeks, and sometimes months—some 300 million children are currently missing class—parents, educators, and policymakers are panicking.

Mass compulsory schooling has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that we forget it’s a relatively recent social construct. Responding to the pandemic, the United Nations declared that “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

We have collectively become so programmed to believe that education and schooling are synonymous that we can’t imagine learning without schooling and become frazzled and fearful when schools are shuttered. If nothing else, perhaps this worldwide health scare will remind us that schooling isn’t inevitable and education does not need to be confined to a conventional classroom.

Mass Schooling Is a New Idea

For most of human history, up until the mid-19th century, education was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.

Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras; tutors were ubiquitous, apprenticeships were valued and sought-after, and literacy rates were extremely high. Public schools existed to supplement education for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence.

The Puritan colonists’ passed the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts Bay in the 1640s describing a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelling towns of a certain size to hire a teacher or to open a grammar school. But the compulsion rested with towns to provide educational resources to those families who wanted them, not with the families themselves.

Historians Kaestle and Vinovskis explain that the Puritans “saw these schools as supplements to education within the family, and they made no effort to require parents actually to send their children to school rather than train them at home.” This all changed in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory schooling statute, mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force. Writing in his book, Pillars of the Republic, Kaestle reminds us: “Society educates in many ways. The state educates through schools.”

Society Without Schooling

We already have glimpses of what education without schooling can look like. When the Chicago teachers’ strike shut down public schools for 11 days last October, civil society stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club opened their doors during the daytime to local youth, the aquarium and local museums offered special programming, church and religious organizations welcomed young people with tutoring and enrichment activities, public libraries and parks were populated with families, and the federal school lunch program continued to nourish children in need.

This same pattern repeats itself during summer school vacation each year, with various community organizations, local businesses, and public spaces such as libraries and parks offering educational and recreational experiences for young people.

The idea that children and adolescents need to be enclosed within a conventional school classroom in order to learn is a myth. Humans are hard-wired to learn. Young children are exuberant, creative, curious learners who are passionate about exploration and discovery. These qualities do not magically disappear with age. They are routinely smothered by standardized schooling.

As Boston College psychology professor and unschooling advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free To Learn:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. . . Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

As humans increasingly coexist with robots, it’s crucial that young people retain and cultivate the imagination, ingenuity, and desire for learning that separate human intelligence from its artificial antipode. These qualities can be ideally nurtured outside of a standardized, one-size-fits-all school classroom where children and adolescents are free to pursue their interests and develop important skills and knowledge, while being mentored by talented adults in their communities.

An example of this type of learning is a series of spring daytime classes for homeschoolers at a makerspace in Boston offering up to nine hours of content each week in topics ranging from architecture and design to STEM science and art, taught by trained engineers, scientists, and artists. These are the types of high-quality educators and learning experiences that can and do flourish when we seek and support education without schooling.

In addition to its health scare, coronavirus has triggered widespread fear about how children can be educated when they can’t go to school. Despite the fact that mass compulsory schooling is a relic of the industrial age, its power and influence continue to expand. Perhaps some families will now discover that education outside of standard schooling is not only nothing to fear but may actually be the best way to learn in the innovation era.

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Coronavirus May Lead to “Mass Homeschooling”

As fears of coronavirus mount around the globe, cities and countries are taking action to prevent the new respiratory virus strain from spreading. While the virus has not yet hit hard in the United States, government officials and health agencies have enacted response plans, corporations are halting travel abroad, and education leaders are grappling with what a widespread domestic outbreak of the virus could mean for schoolchildren.

In countries where the virus is active, schools have been shut down and children are at home, learning alongside their parents or through online education portals. The New York Times reports that US schools have been prompted this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for a coronavirus epidemic that could shutter schools and require alternate forms of teaching and learning outside the conventional classroom. According to Kevin Carey of the New America think tank, coronavirus in the US could lead to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling.”

Indeed, in Hong Kong this is already occurring. The coronavirus outbreak led to orders for schools to be shut down in the city for two months, affecting 800,000 students. An article this week in The Wall Street Journal declares that “coronavirus prompts a whole city to try home schooling,” noting that in Hong Kong many children are completing lessons virtually through online learning platforms or receiving live instruction from teachers through Google Hangouts or similar digital tools.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a viral epidemic to spotlight the many alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling. Not only is homeschooling widely popular in the US, educating approximately two million children nationwide, but other schooling alternatives, such as virtual learning, microschooling, and hybrid homeschooling continue to sprout.

Virtual learning programs such as the Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 as the nation’s first fully online public high school, and K12, Inc., one of the largest providers of virtual schooling, enable young people to take a complete course load and earn a high school diploma without sitting in a traditional classroom environment. Supplementary online programs, such as Khan Academy and Outschool, expand learning options and allow young people to dig deeper into topics that interest them or those in which they may need some additional help.

Interest in online learning options is sure to increase as the coronavirus spreads, but other in-person schooling alternatives are also likely to gain notoriety. Microschools, for example, are small, home-based, multi-age learning environments that act like a one-room schoolhouse, typically with no more than 8 to 12 students at a time. Prenda is a fast-growing network of these branded, in-home microschools, with more than 80 schools in Arizona alone serving some 550 students, and plans to expand out-of-state.

Like microschools, hybrid homeschooling programs and small, community-based classes for homeschoolers are also gaining popularity and may be swept into the limelight if conventional schools are forced to temporarily close. Operating with small, age-mixed groups of children, these hybrid models and classes offer an alternative to institutional schooling, avoiding large classrooms and crowded buildings. I have recently launched a marketplace platform, Unschool.school, that connects educators, parents, and learners to these homeschooling models and out-of-school learning experiences, fostering small group, in-person interactions in local community spaces, such as art studios, makerspaces, and spare dining rooms.

These emerging learning options outside of traditional schooling show not only that “mass homeschooling” is possible but also that it may be highly desirable. Personalized learning, small group interactions that build community and connection, and education without the coercion inherent in standard schooling are beneficial whether or not a pending epidemic is what exposes families to these education possibilities. Mass homeschooling may be just the cure we need.

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Preemptive Wealth Management

It’s kind of funny that most curricula are focused on kids and young adults learning things before they need to know them.

They learn about and memorize facts and ideas that are completely unnecessary to solving actual problems they face. The idea is so that they’ll be prepared and know things in case they ever become important or useful to know in the future. It’s odd for several reasons, not least of which is that this kind of learning has almost no retention, but especially because most of the students won’t end up ever facing most of the problems even if they did retain the knowledge. (I have used Pythagorean theorem once in my entire life, and even then I didn’t remember its name or the specific formula, but had a vague idea that there was a way to find out one length of a triangle if I had the other two. Google did the rest.)

It should be taken as a given then that I am not pushing for “just in case” learning, or any kind of compulsory education period.

But if one were to agree with the standard approach of learning a bunch of things that might possibly be useful to some sliver of the class at some point in the future, you would think there might be a good bit of material on wealth management. After all, there are 12 million millionaires in the US – more than 3% of the population – which is probably higher than the percent of students who will ever need to know how to label a mitochondria. If you believe in preparatory learning, preparing to manage wealth would seem at least as logical as preparing to be a medical doctor. (There are roughly 900,000 doctors in the US, or less than 0.3% of the population).

We tend to think about wealth as only a benefit, not a problem to be dealt with. “Oh yeah, sure would be nice if my biggest challenge was learning how to manage a million bucks!” Maybe. But probably not as nice as we imagine.

What’s the opportunity cost of paying off a mortgage vs putting the money to work in the market? How liquid do you need to be? Where to keep cash since banks are only insured or $250,000 in deposits? How to deal with requests and demands from friends and family? How much to hedge against exogenous economic shocks? How to do so? How to not get taken advantage of by financial planners, lawyers, accountants, and managers of family offices and trusts? What’s the best way to handle inheritances so you give your kids a leg up but don’t cripple them and rob their ability to gain strength by solving their own problems?

Most people have trouble with financial management at the paycheck to paycheck level. More money doesn’t magically solve that. The problems just get bigger and the stakes higher.

While the idea of compulsory public schools teaching wealth management is not desirable, there might be something to the idea of individuals who desire to achieve wealth learning how to manage it a few steps ahead of time. If nothing else, the mindset alone is a form of subconscious confidence building. Investing in wealth management is a kind of bet on yourself that you will put it to use.

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State of the Union: No, Nick, Your Children Owe Nothing

Nicholas Sarwark is father to four pre-teen children. In his response to the State of the Union, delivered on behalf of the Libertarian Party (which he serves as national chair), he mentions that each of them are in debt to the tune of $70,633. “Not because we gave them credit cards to go buy cars,” he explains, but “because politicians in Washington have a credit card called the national debt.”

I don’t disagree with Nick — whom I’ve known for about 20 years — very often. On this subject, however, I do so vehemently.

No, Nick, your children don’t owe $70,633 each to the US government’s creditors. Nor do you or your wife Valerie. Nor do I. Nor does anyone reading this column who’s not a current or former president, vice-president, or member of Congress.

The only people who owe the $23 trillion “national debt” are the people who borrowed the money.

You didn’t borrow the money. They did.

You didn’t co-sign the loan. You didn’t negotiate the interest rates or other terms.

Yes, they offered your future income and your children’s future income as collateral, but that income wasn’t theirs to offer. You weren’t even consulted, except to the extent that 25% or so of you (on average) voted for one or more of the borrowers, most of whom lied to you about exercising “fiscal discipline” if elected.

And their creditors knew that, making them loan sharks by proxy. How else to describe someone who loans money on the borrowers’ promise to go beat it — principal plus interest — out of non-consenting third parties?

No one in his or her right mind believes the “national debt” will ever be paid off. It’s too big, it’s growing too fast, and it represents too large a chunk of American wealth and production.

Sooner or later, in one way or another, the US government will default. The politicians who borrow the money and the speculators who loan it to them are both engaged in a long-term game of musical chairs, hoping that the music won’t stop before they retire, die, or cash out at a profit.

When the music does stop, it’s going to get ugly for all of us. But the longer the music continues, the uglier that final note.

The good news is that after the default, the politicians’ credit card will be declined for some time to come, perhaps teaching them to live within their ample means.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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